As images of starvation in Ethiopia crowd their way into our consciousness on evening news broadcasts, many Americans are confronted with the worst African famine of the century. Also, they have become aware that American and other private agencies are playing an indispensable role in a situation in which political considerations had delayed Ethiopian and United States government responses.
It comes as no surprise that people-to-people organizations are working energetically and effectively in Ethiopia. Experts warn that up to 1 million people may starve. For just this reason Americans have come to expect their voluntary agencies to be involved in situations of acute human need - whether in Cambodia, Central America, or here at home.
As we observe the 10th anniversary of the 1974 World Food Conference this week, it is timely to ask how significant has been the contribution of people-to-people agencies toward the conference objective that within a decade no child would go to bed hungry, no family fear for its next day's bread.
More than 170 private and voluntary US agencies - groups like CARE and Africare, Volunteers in Technical Assistance and Technoserve, Catholic Relief Services, and my own agencies - are currently registered with the US Agency for International Development. Last year they reported private contributions of just over $1 billion. The government provided them with $750 million more in grants, contracts, food assistance, and other forms of support, a portion of the larger US economic assistance program of some $9 billion.
Roughly three-fourths of these private agency resources are directed toward third-world countries. While the United States now ranks a distressing 16th of 17 developed nations in its economic assistance as a proportion of its gross national product, the US is tied for eighth place when it comes to citizen contributions to the private agencies of their choice.
Last summer, when governments reviewed progress during the past decade toward eradicating hunger, they conceded the shortcomings of many government programs in reaching the hungry. They observed that while food production at the global level and in many third-world countries had risen faster than population, the number of people who suffer from chronic malnutrition has also increased. The past decade has seen, in the words of a World Food Council document, ''more food but less food equity.''
Voluntary agencies, however, are neither a US invention nor a monopoly. There are nongovernmental groups in many other countries, developed and developing, and at the international level as well. Such groups are increasingly courted by the US and other governments and by United Nations agencies. US private groups, in addition to the resources noted above, received $84 million in 1983 from other governments and international organizations.
Governments seeking a more effective attack against hunger during the balance of the century envision an expanding role for people-to-people agencies, many of which have already stepped up their efforts during the decade since the World Food Conference. Their involvement at the grass-roots level provides a major missing link in reaching the very poor.
Their involvement also ensures that development strategies and projects reflect popular aspirations and enjoy broad ownership.
A recent congressional report credits private agencies with having ''contributed mightily to putting a human face on US foreign aid throughout the world.'' The US Congress and parliaments of various countries now direct a specified share of government aid funds to be channeled through private agencies.
Likewise the efforts of voluntary agencies at educating the general public, particularly in the industrialized countries, are now seen as an essential means of expanding public awareness of the root cases of hunger and of rekindling flagging support for relief and development efforts by governments. Their advocacy activities, designed to influence public policies to be more responsive to the needs of the poor, are also a necessary if still controversial part of their work.
Based on their experience in Ethiopia and elsewhere, nongovernment agencies, and the governments with which they interact, are pondering ways to expand their efforts. Beyond the obvious need to mobilize more private resources, a tempting approach is simply for governments to provide, and agencies to accept, more government resources. This approach risks undermining the private and voluntary nature of such agencies, some of which are already more governmental than private in their funding sources.
Surprisingly, the US has yet to find adequate ways and means, as have many European governments, of facilitating people-to-people work as being valuable in its own right.
Instead, the US tends to treat private agencies as means to a particular end, such as advancing foreign policy or promoting an economic ideology.
As private agencies take their rightful place among the major actors addressing the world hunger challenge, many are adopting a more policy-oriented approach to their work. Private agencies are coming more and more to affirm that , however exemplary their own work, governments play indispensable roles, direct and indirect, in making hunger, or freedom from it, a reality for their own people.
This fall private agencies in the US have launched a professional organization called INTERACTION. Through its efforts they hope to augment their capacity for dealing with the political complexities of humanitarian emergencies , their expertise as development agents, their ability to educate their constituencies and to serve as effective voices for the poor, and their effectiveness in dealing with the US government itself.
Meanwhile, the constructive activities of people-to-people organizations in the Ethiopian tragedy and in the longer-term development challenge in Africa and across the third world are cause for rejoicing. If the decade-old commitment to eradicate hunger succeeds, it will need voluntary organizations to assume a more creative and policy-oriented role, in partnership with committed governments, in assisting people now hungry to provide for their own economic and nutritional needs.